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October 25, 2018 | Local, Aerospace

An Investment in Capability

If you’re planning to become hopelessly lost, my advice is to do it in Norway.

That was the author’s conclusion after Skies was invited to the Leonardo Helicopters facility in Yeovil, England, to fly the latest variant of the AW101 search and rescue (SAR) helicopter.

The machine was brand new, pending delivery to Norway, but represented a configuration that Leonardo has proposed to the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) as an upgrade for Canada’s fleet of CH-149 Cormorant SAR helicopters.


The CH-149 Cormorant entered RCAF service in 2002. While not an old airframe by Canadian standards, the subsequent evolution of the model has left our version somewhat dated, and Leonardo maintains that obsolescence issues are beginning to adversely affect operational availability

Team Cormorant is an industry consortium composed of Leonardo Helicopters, IMP Aerospace & Defence, CAE, GE Canada and Rockwell Collins Canada.

The group’s unsolicited proposal to the Air Force is intended to guard against creeping obsolescence and ultimately to reduce the cost of operating the helicopter. Under Team Cormorant’s proposal, the RCAF would also acquire a training facility with a modern full-mission simulator, likely to be installed at 19 Wing Comox, B.C.

The machine on offer to Canada is an extensively upgraded version of the RCAF’s existing airframe, based upon the AW101-612 configuration; 16 of which are destined for Norway under its Norwegian All-Weather SAR Helicopter (NAWSARH) program.

Team Cormorant’s proposal to Canada also seeks to take advantage of nine former VH-71 Kestrel airframes from the cancelled U.S. presidential helicopter program, acquired by the RCAF in 2011. These would be used to augment the Cormorant fleet from the current 14–widely acknowledged as inadequate for Canadian SAR requirements–up to potentially 21 machines.

Enhanced fleet size would allow the RCAF to base the Cormorant at 8 Wing Trenton, Ont.; a move that would improve SAR capability in the vast Trenton SAR region.

Compared to in-service CH-149 Cormorants, the upgrades on offer include new, more powerful, full-authority digital electronic-controlled (FADEC) General Electric CT7-8E turboshaft engines; a more modern Rockwell Collins cockpit and avionics suite; improved aircraft management system; and a newly designed, four-axis dual-duplex digital automatic flight control system (AFCS).

The sensor package promises the biggest capability upgrade, and includes an electro-optical surveillance system; a multi-mode active electronically-scanned array (AESA) radar; cell phone detection and tracking system; and marine automatic identification system (AIS) transponder receiver.


In 2016, Skies dispatched me to fly the CH-149 Cormorant with RCAF’s 442 Squadron at CFB Comox. It was an opportunity for this former Air Force CH-113/A Labrador SAR pilot to see first-hand how the Cormorant had changed the job I did decades ago in those same mountains.

I recall that the Cormorant brought a lot of new technology to the SAR business, but the basic mission, like the mountains around us, was unchanged.

After that flight, I reported: “Flying SAR was still a matter of cautious and skillful flying, using maps and looking out the window.” That experience left me with great regard for Air Force SAR crews and for the operational capability of the Cormorant, but also bemused to find that the business of searching still basically relied upon the “Mark 1 eyeball.”

A flight in the latest variant of the AW101 was a terrific opportunity for a more contemporary comparison. The experience would demonstrate that leading-edge systems–particularly electro-optic sensor technologies–offer SAR capabilities that are as much a generational improvement over the current Cormorant as the Cormorant was over my beloved ol’ Labrador.


Leonardo Helicopters test pilot Richard “Russ” Grant kindly offered me the right seat for our demonstration flight. Veteran flight test engineer (FTE) Andy Cotton served as sensor operator. Conditions were ideal, under a clear sky with a warm (24 C) gentle breeze along the century-old former-Westlands grass runway.

Our test helicopter was the sixth production machine destined for Norway, operated by Leonardo under U.K. Ministry of Defence registration ZZ015. The helicopter’s empty weight was 11,039 kilograms with much of its SAR interior yet to be fitted. Adding 2,000 kilograms of fuel (roughly half its 4,150-kilogram capacity) and three crewmembers brought the takeoff mass to 13,517 kilograms, which was well below the maximum allowable gross weight of 15,600 kilograms.

The Cormorant that Skies flew with RCAF’s 442 Squadron, although fully equipped for SAR with a standard fuel load of 2,400 kilograms and a crew of six, had a gross takeoff mass of 13,800 kilograms, which was below the maximum allowable gross weight of 14,600 kilograms. Direct comparison is difficult to establish, but the Norwegian machine is both heavier with installed systems and has more installed power than the CH-149, so the net result may be expected to be about the same operational power margin.

Rapid dispatch can be facilitated by starting the auxiliary power unit (APU) while strapping in. Grant talked me through the engine starting procedure from memory. Air Force crews will use a checklist, but the procedure was quick and straightforward

Engine controls consisted of three rotary knobs on the overhead panel in place of engine condition levers. I monitored the start, but Grant advised that in the event of a start-up malfunction the FADEC would shut down the engine faster than the pilots could react. We started the No. 1 engine first to power the accessory drive, providing hydraulic and electric power and bleed air. Starts of engines No. 2 and No. 3 were done simultaneously. Pre-flight checks and initialization of the aircraft management system (AMS, but think “master computer”) took Grant only minutes.

Despite the functional similarity of the cockpit to the CH-149, the impression that I was amidst unfamiliar new technology was immediate. As ground crews pulled the chocks and busied themselves around the helicopter, the onboard Obstacle Proximity LIDAR System (OPLS, where LIDAR is light detection and ranging, since I needed to ask, too) annunciated their presence around the turning rotors.

This system, which Grant described as being like the parking sensors in a car, provided a pop-up display and discretely-pitched audio cues depicting the range and azimuth to obstacles around the helicopter. Having come from a generation where we squinted into a landing light beam to guesstimate rotor clearance from obstacles, all I can say is, I want one!

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